On March 5, 2020, Ocean Conservancy hosted a “Lunch and Learn” educational session dedicated to learning about the story of Kiribati (pronounced “Kiribas”). Our staff gathered to hear from the generation that might be the last to be raised on their home island as they reflect on their hopes and fears for their future. On a map of the Earth, Kiribati is geographically at the very center of the world. Because of this country’s uniquely secluded location, it is one of the first nations in the world to witness the florid orange from a sunrise as the world initiates another rotation. Yet, this island nation is predicted to be one of the first to vanish at the end of the century as a result of climate change.
In Kiribati, the word for land, “
aba,” can also be translated to mean “people” and “country.” Ancestral land holds more meaning beyond simply ownership, as it is linked to identity, culture and history.
“When an individual in Kiribati is born, traditionally, they are birthed on their family’s land. They grow up on that land and start families of their own on that land. When they die, they return to the land to join the ancestors above to watch over and protect the land for future generations. When the land disappears, it severs that connection between the living and their ancestors.”
Professor, University of Cincinnati
The students recount how over the years the low tides are higher, the water is creeping inland and the neighbors are complaining of soil-imbibed saline water. Their precarious position makes them more vulnerable to the dangers of high tides and disastrous storms. Their community tolerates these issues to a specific point until, eventually, a question arises.
Where will they go once there’s no more room to move inward? What would become of them if, and when, their islands disappear?
Children in the village of Tebikenikora, on Kiribati’s main Tarawa atoll. © UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Even so, there are those who refuse to drown.
Ocean Conservancy had the privilege of listening firsthand to
Dr. Mike Roman, professor at the University of Cincinnati, who has made it his life’s work to share Kiribati’s story. As he reflects on the fate of his home and its culture and survival as a people, he concludes by convoking the greater humanity in all of us:
It has been 20 years since we first met, since I first breathed in your salty air waded in your warm turquoise blue waters. Instantly, you intoxicated me. All of me. My mind, heart and soul. But today I fear for you. I fear that the rest of the world will not know you. Blinded by climate change, they will not see your beauty, your kindness, your katei (customs and culture), worthy of everything this world has to offer and more. The world hoped to solve this ecological genocide with science, laws, innovation and money. But money (or rather greed) is what brought us here. And the technology will not develop fast enough to stop what has already happened. I believe humanity is the only way to solve this. We are capable of transformational compassion; we see it all the time. It is compassion that drives change to a more globally just society; where greed, hate and anger are replaced by generosity, love and joy.
Dear world, I believe in you. I believe in us. I believe in humanity. Because if the climate can change, so can we.
Ocean Conservancy’s mission statement conveys that we are working with you to protect the ocean from today’s greatest global challenges. For people who rely solely on the environment and our ocean as a way of life and a mode of survival, environmental issues pose a looming threat over the present … and alarmingly, the future generations of islanders as well.
My hope through my role as a community-based storyteller here at Ocean Conservancy is that the story of Kiribati serves as critical reminder of the importance and urgency of the work we do. And as a Pacific Islander, I also hope that there is greater recognition of the necessity to be inclusive of these voices in climate change conversations. It is difficult to talk about climate change without talking to the communities on the frontlines of experiencing these challenges. And it is just as difficult to shape the future without listening to the individuals who are one day going to inherit it.
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